News + Ideas

How Entrepreneurs are Tackling Challenges in Ed Tech 

An Interview with Peter Gault, Co-founder and Executive Director of Quill.org, on designing for student differences

We recently released an insight brief on what we’re learning from three years of ed tech investing. In the brief, we identified three consistent patterns we observed across all of our ed tech investments.

This three-part blog series is intended to give readers an in depth look at how ed tech entrepreneurs are tackling the most challenging opportunities in the field today, and how entrepreneurs can position themselves on the path to success, too.

NewSchools: Can you share an overview of Quill.org and how the company addresses learning differences in building writing skills?
Peter Gault: Quill.org’s free online tools help low-income third-12th grade students improve their writing skills. Teachers are provided with free access to our research-based curriculum, and students receive targeted feedback on their work, enabling them to revise their writing and quickly improve their skills. To immediately assess and serve feedback on student writing, Quill.org’s activities incorporate natural language processing, a subset of artificial intelligence focused on analyzing language.

To support learning difference, Quill.org creates a personalized learning plan for each student by having students complete a diagnostic assessment that assesses a range of writing skills. The diagnostic report then recommends a set of high-impact activities for each student. 

NewSchools: How can the diagnostics support English Language Learners?
Peter Gault: Our ELL Diagnostic consists of 22 questions to assess students’ knowledge of ten different grammar concepts. These concepts have been specifically chosen for English Language Learners, and it includes articles, verb tense, subject-verb agreement, prepositions, and capitalization. The ELL Diagnostic provides additional support for English language learners by offering directions in both English and the student’s native language. Alongside the English directions, students have the option of adding directions in Spanish, Mandarin, French, Vietnamese, Arabic, or Hindi.

NewSchools: That’s a range of language options that you don’t often see in ed tech. How does your status as a nonprofit affect your strategy and approach as an ed tech company?
Peter Gault: As a nonprofit, we are specifically focused on building content and tools that serve low-income students and schools. With a rapidly growing ELL population in the United States, there is a big opportunity now to reach out directly to a diverse population of students and support individual needs. To best support, these students, our curriculum development team has extensive experience working in low-income schools, and we build content that addresses the key skills needed by those students. Furthermore, our assessments are designed to provide remedial support for students who need to backfill missing skills. This can be particularly impactful for students entering middle school or high school with gaps in their writing skills.

NewSchools: Why is writing instruction an urgent educational problem for low-income students?
Peter Gault: As of 2012, there are 31 million low-income K-12 students in the United States, defined as students eligible for Free or Reduced Price Lunch. Eighty-eight percent of these students struggle with writing, which is one of the biggest hurdles low-income students face on their path to work, post secondary training and/or higher education. In order to get a job, gain entry into a technical training program, or matriculate and succeed at college, students need to write emails, answer questions on digital applications, and write essays. According to the Nation’s Report Card, only one percent of all 12th-graders nationwide could write a sophisticated, well-organized essay. Consequently, 40% of students who matriculate at community college need remedial writing instruction. Over the past 30 years, as knowledge-based work has come to dominate the economy, American high schools have raised achievement rates in mathematics by providing more extensive and higher-level instruction. High schools, however, are still graduating large numbers of students who do not have the writing skills needed to enter the 21st-century workforce.

NewSchools: Which strategies work to improve writing?
Peter Gault: In 2007, Dr. Graham and Dr. Perin published the Writing Next report, a seminal publication sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation. Based on an analysis of 176 studies, the report recommends eleven proven strategies for building writing skills. The report findings “are based strictly on experimental and quasi-experimental research, as this is the only type of research that allows for rigorous comparison of effects across studies.” The recommended strategies include summarization, collaborative writing, and sentence combining. However, the Writing Next report notes that some of these strategies have not been widely disseminated. A number of nonprofit organizations, including Quill.org, are working with these researchers to help disseminate these strategies.

NewSchools: Which strategies does Quill incorporate from Writing Next?
Peter Gault: Quill.org builds basic writing skills through sentence combining. The Writing Next report states, “Sentence combining involves teaching students to construct more complex and sophisticated sentences through exercises in which two or more basic sentences are combined into a single sentence. Teaching adolescents how to write increasingly complex sentences in this way enhances the quality of their writing.” In an interview, Graham states that, “We have considerable evidence that when you teach kids to take small kernel sentences, model how to combine those into more complex sentences, work with them to help them do that until they get a handle on the skill, and then have them do it with others and then do it in their own writing, that has a positive impact both on the quality of their writing and the complexity syntactically of what they write.” Fifty years of research shows that sentence combining expedites syntactic maturity and fluency, improves writing quality, and has lasting effects on all levels of student writing performance. In recent research, the strategy has also been used to improve writing outcomes for struggling students. Sentence combining instruction has even produced improvements in reading comprehension performance outcomes.

NewSchools: How does using Quill improve sentence construction skills?
Peter Gault: At the beginning of the study, students completed a diagnostic assessment and then were recommended specific writing activities based on their needs. The prescribed intervention was to complete 20 activities over four weeks by completing one activity per day. In these focused, ten to fifteen minute activities, students would repeatedly practice certain concepts until they demonstrated mastery. Initially, most required extensive feedback so that they could eventually produce coherent, elaborated, and well-ordered sentences. But they made progress with Quill. And quickly. Over the course of twenty activities, students wrote and received feedback on at least 100 sentences, and WestEd found that these active student users (i.e. students who used Quill.org as prescribed) saw a statistically significant increase in their test scores and demonstrated larger gains compared to the results of low-usage users.

Visit Quill’s website to learn more about how they’re addressing learning differences, and stay tuned for our next interview with Komal Dadlani from Lab4U on how her company got into classrooms early and often which helped them build a great product!

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